Last Tuesday (Oct 3, 2023) I attended a Transitus celebration at St. Mary's Basilica. When I walked in, the church was dark with just a few lights high in the vaulted ceiling, a half-dozen candles in the sanctuary. On the left and on the right, Jesus and Mary stood quietly in their own pool of light. That was all. It's been years since I've seen the church so dark.
But surprisingly, it was also very exciting, in a quiet, Catholic sort of way. We love our churches, taking great care to keep them--to keep a particular feeling of holiness and respect. Someone once told me that the walls of churches absorb the prayers of everyone who visits. Over time, those prayers fill the atmosphere. When you walk in you feel it immediately.
I walked the entire length of the church in the shadows, found my seat and waited. The chorale was just finishing up practicing. I'd come early to participate as a Reader, so there wasn't much to do except settle into the quiet. The liturgy began quietly as the presiders came in. The chorus sang a beautiful hymn, in Latin, and the censor walked into the sanctuary, filling the church with fragrant incense.
And then the smoke alarms went off.
Things like this happen all the time. The choir kept singing, the organ kept playing, the priests and friars kept praying and we all went on as though nothing was happening, even though we couldn't hear what was being said. A sacristan left his seat and walked back to the sacristy, opening doors to the outside to ventilate the incense. When the alarms finally stopped, everyone sat down and settled in.
Transitus celebrates the death of St. Francis and his entry into paradise by reading stories from and about him, mixed in with Scripture, candlelight and special symbols, like a patched brown robe spread on the ground. But St. Mary's, in honor of its own special mission as Mother Church of the Diocese of Phoenix, sits at the heart of the Phoenix city center, directly across the street from the Phoenix Civic Center. On Tuesday night there was a special "street party" across the intersection, with booths, food (and drinks) and a live band WITH VERY STRONG SPEAKERS. Along with our prayers, songs and deep feelings, the sound of the street band thumped and pounded through the thick walls and stained glass windows of the Basilica. Like the fire alarm, everyone ignored it, but it made me think about our "mission in the heart of the world". Would we ever share some ordinary peace and quiet...?
When I proclaimed my section of the readings, I climbed down from the pulpit carefully and made my way to a seat in the shadows where I could the rest of the event. I wondered how my feelings can change so easily between light and darkness, how so much of me, so many of my thoughts and understandings, seem cloaked in shadows. Am I a Creature of the Light? Or a creature of the night...? I don't hate the shadows, or judge myself as unworthy nearly so much as I wonder, when I pray in dark churches, how brilliant the Light is, how when it shines on me I lose my senses and don't know where I stand in God's presence. This is part of our journey. Everyone has doubts and uncertainties. They aren't always problems. As we go forward in conversion we often have to walk in faith.
Though I actually prefer the darkness and quiet when I pray, I've come to love and value my days and hours in community. Sharing prayers can be a powerful thing, but I don't think, when it comes to Christ, that we should be afraid of the dark. After all, God made both day and night--gave them their names and then gave us to them to be our dwelling place. Time is a journey. It all matters.
So as the autumn days get shorter and nights get longer, let's remember and embrace all the opportunities to celebrate our faith-journey. It comes in every shape and size, every experience and moment. These are the days we celebrate time itself, time the gift, time the pathway and the road home.
And as I move between light and shadows, I think of you all and look forward to seeing you "here and in all the churches of the world..." May the Light of Christ be inside of you the whole way.